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How Singapore won me over

The camaraderie shown by Singaporeans since Lee Kuan Yew's death changed my mind about becoming a citizen

As the world watched, Singaporeans stood quietly beneath a blanket of umbrellas undaunted by the elements as they waited for the cortege to pass by.


IT started with a downpour.

As the world watched, Singaporeans stood quietly beneath a blanket of umbrellas undaunted by the elements as they waited for the cortege to pass by.

They were standing in line for the very man who had described Singapore as a country of "champion grumblers", but none of them muttered a word of complaint.

And when the cortege arrived, the umbrellas came down, as a people united in grief helped one another get a better view of the man they were paying their respects to - one last time.

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Just like that, Singapore seemed to become a family overnight. Strangers shared their umbrellas with one another; helping hands reached out to support those in precarious viewing positions. The country's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, in his death, did something that decades of courtesy campaigns could not - bringing Singaporeans out of their shells.

While the rain has stopped, and Singaporeans have seemingly moved on with their lives (many replaced their black-and-white profile pictures on Facebook the next day with characteristic efficiency), events in the months since bore testament to how this was not just a one-off display of camaraderie.

Anecdotes that continue to trickle in show that Singaporeans are no longer the same old in just minding their own business; stories of kindness abound on social media, such as during the recent MRT breakdown and even in the routines of everyday life.

For many years, friends have asked why I remain only a permanent resident (PR). After all, I have been here a long time. My family moved here when I was nine, and the Singapore system has given me opportunities beyond what I'd have dreamt of had my family stayed in our country of birth. But I felt no impetus to change the current status quo. I have no need, as yet, for the medical subsidies and the housing grants - the main differences I saw in being a Singaporean versus a PR.

The death of Mr Lee, however, catalysed something that I had never seen before in Singapore: a willingness among its people to go out of their way for complete strangers, and to laugh at themselves when life doesn't turn out as expected.

A friend describes Singapore as a typical Asian family in which a strict father worked hard to give his family a good life. The children, preoccupied with their own lives, never realised how little they expressed their gratitude and love, until the patriarch passes on. And now, like siblings who have had to grow up suddenly, we decide to take better care of one another.

This, ultimately, was what changed my mind on becoming a Singaporean: knowing that I'll be part of a family that looks out for one another. Feeling that I'd now be able to call myself a Singaporean with pride, I submitted my application for citizenship in May. Granted, the future in Singapore would not exactly be a bed of roses. Singapore's economy - the sheer force of which enabled the country to carry a weight beyond its size - is now adjusting to a phase of slower growth and grinding through a restructuring process. As the country matures, its people are coming to terms with alternative, and sometimes controversial, versions of the country's history. And so too are its people growing in their understanding of free speech, and the responsibilities that come along with it.

No home, though, is ever perfect. Singapore is fortunate to have had grown as quickly as it had, with the unfortunate result that many have already forgotten the pains of the earlier years. Whether the journey ahead in the next 50 years will be better or even as good is a question which causes anxiety in this country that constantly carries with it a sense of vulnerability.

But as a senior colleague often says, Singapore's future is bright, because of its younger generation. The cold pragmatism that has served Singapore so well for the past 50 years - and is so ingrained in the psyche of its people - also means that this will be one country that will not fear to take the harder route to a better future, I believe.

In the end, building a nation is not just about economics and seizing the right opportunities, important as they are. It is about how we care for every person who has made this place home, whether Singaporean or sojourner.

As Mr Lee - perhaps the best embodiment of Singapore pragmatism - himself said nearly 20 years ago: "We cannot measure our happiness just by our GDP growth. It is how our families and friends care for each other, how we look after our old and nurture our young. They are what make for a closely-knit society, one we can be proud to belong to."

So this message, really, goes out to each person - holding the Singapore passport, or otherwise - who has made Singapore what it is today, and to whom this little red dot holds a special place in the heart: Happy 50th birthday, Singapore.


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